Cultivating Culture


The concept of culture is a hot topic in businesses, schools, and churches, and rightfully so. We’ve managed to take this beautiful word that covers cultivated behavior, accumulated experiences, and a collection of patterns both explicit and implicit and use it to describe, as my students might say… the “vibe” of a group of people.

This idea of identifying our values and intentionally living them out is so woven into our culture, it even affects our art. How many of us have a cute farmhouse painting declaring that “In this house, we…” or “In this family, we…”? What follows those statements is usually a list of verbs declaring what “we” do… forgive each other, love one another, give second chances, etc.

While I’ve always been drawn to these, my students and I have never really taken time to create a list like that for HPA, but what happened yesterday was more beautiful than any list we could have written as a beginning-of-the-year icebreaker exercise. But first, I need to give you a little linguistics lesson so you can fully understand how amazed I was at what took place yesterday.

While studying linguistics in college, I learned about the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism. Precriptivism prescribes a set of rules for grammar and mechanics that should be followed to the letter. Descriptivism looks at how we communicate naturally, then uses the tools of grammar and mechanics to describe that communication. I find myself using this analogy for so much of what we face in life, and yesterday was no exception.

Yesterday, in one of the most authentic conversations I’ve ever been a part of in a school setting, something AMAZING happened. My students started describing our school culture. One by one they listed the values that we hold dear and the way those values benefit our school culture. They spoke about a lack of bullying, the need for quick and genuine forgiveness, the importance of humility, and the profound impact of being in relationship with people who come alongside you and encourage you.


They said that coming to school just feels like coming to another home, and that it truly feels like we are a family, complete with a bonus mom/cool aunt, grandmother, and a giant list of brothers and sisters that would fill up about five of those classic home school vans. 😉

When asked why they thought it was like this, their answers left me speechless! One mentioned the fact that it just felt like the Holy Spirit was present in class every day, making it almost impossible to bully, gossip, and lie. But what surprised me most is that they said that it was just the culture we’ve created here at HPA.

And though my heart was bursting with pride at all I was hearing, all I could think is that

THIS is what it looks like to put God at the center.

THIS is what it looks like when teenagers choose to love others the way that Christ loves us, and

THIS is what it looks like to be in relationship with people who cheer each other along, walk with you through the hard times, and have your back day in and day out.


In this family, that’s just what we do!


Lessons Learned from Trying on Glasses

Yesterday, during our second day of school this year, a few of my students came in with the cutest glasses on you’ve ever seen! Now, some people may love high-end shoes, while others may love name brand shirts, but this little nerd right here? Glasses!

What’s interesting is that right now, nerdy glasses are trending – the bigger, the better. I mean, I’ve been wearing glasses since probably junior high, but if a trend comes along for something I’m already wearing, I am HERE for it! I’ll be at the check out counter at a store, and someone will compliment my black and white polka dot glasses, and all I can think is What a time to be alive!

But back to yesterday. When I saw these cute glasses and began “fan-girling” on them, my students were kind enough to let me try them on. I ran into the bathroom and took a look at myself in the mirror. “I look PRECIOUS in these,” I said jokingly.

On the way back out of the bathroom, I heard one of the girls lightheartedly say, “I wish I had that kind of confidence,” and I can’t get that phrase out of my head.

Here’s what I want to tell that girl (and EVERY girl) – Sis, that confidence was hard-earned! I’ve survived braces, bad haircuts (ask my mom about my self-inflicted half-inch bangs), and cringeworthy wardrobe malfunctions that will turn your face red just HEARING about them! But here’s the thing, I’ve learned that I don’t get to press “pause” on the calling and purpose God has placed on my life just because something like this has happened.

That gross spaghetti stain on your white shirt you got at lunch? If your day stops there, who is missing out on the blessing of your encouraging word that afternoon while you can’t stop looking at that reddish-orange abstract art that just keeps growing bigger the more you try to clean it?

God’s purpose for your life and for your day, don’t stop just because life threw you a curve ball, but guess what? Neither do His promises. He’s with you through all of it.

But what’s the secret to getting through it? Being so laser-focused on His plan for your life (Jeremiah 29:11) and so secure in your identity in Him (Psalm 139:14) that everything else is just white noise.

So, laugh it off, because we’ve all been there. Lift your head high, because you don’t want that pretty crown to fall off of your head (even if you are having a bad hair day). And keep doing exactly what you’re called to do, because someone needs your strength, your confidence, and your smile (braces and all)!


“Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”

As I sit at my desk the Saturday before the first week of our THIRD year of HPA, I am overwhelmed with love and gratitude for all the people that have helped make this little school a reality. If I started a list, it would be miles long because I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today without the amazing examples set by my teachers from elementary school all the way through college. I also wouldn’t be the Christian I am today without the wonderful pastors, youth leaders, and mentors I have had, but today, I am especially thankful for the strong women I have had in my life to speak words of life and truth into my spirit.

You see, while I’m writing this, my mom and her friends are driving two hours back home after making the pilgrimage up to Gallatin to see our new school building. Those cars that are on the road right now are filled with three generations of powerhouses – my mom and her friends, their daughters who I’m blessed to call my friends, and the newest addition to this hometown tribe – baby Palmer, who has the most beautiful blue eyes you have ever seen!

The Cowan Crew
Leah Salyer (HPA founder), Linda Thayer (“Mama Thayer”), Rose Pearson (family friend who named HPA), Mary Pearson Smith (lifelong friend), Patsy Rigsby (family friend), Jill Rigsby Higgs (lifelong friend and mom to that cutie in the baby carrier, Palmer)

These women know what it means to be a tribe – they celebrate the highs and hang with you through the lows, and raise their hands high on the roller coaster ride of everything in between! They have recipes for all occasions and can throw together a wedding or a baby shower (flowers, food, and all) with their hands tied behind their backs, and I love them fiercely.

So, today when they came to see our new school we moved into in February, it made it feel “real.” Having these ladies from my hometown see this giant dream of mine alive in this building was such an amazing experience, and it just reminds me of the phrase that we are standing on the shoulders of the giants that have come before us.

I had already decided that our theme for this school year would be mentorship, and today was just a beautiful confirmation. To stand in front of the school with Rose Pearson, who named Higher Path Academy; her daughter Mary, who has been one of my longest and very best friends; “Saint Patsy” as my mom calls her, and her sweet daughter Jill and grandson Palmer (I’m already missing those cute little toes!), I truly felt the importance of surrounding yourself with amazing mentors and a tribe that will dream with you, stand with you, cry with you, and fly with you.

Ladies, you have helped me learn to soar! Thank you!

Rose, Mary, and Mama Thayer in front of HPA
Rose Pearson, Mary Pearson Smith, and Linda Thayer

Why I Choose Choice Boards

First, what are choice boards? A choice board is a type of assignment style that gives students the freedom to choose how they will connect with the subject matter.

There are many different styles of choice boards. Some are tic-tac-toe boards, asking students to choose three activities in a row; others are in the form of menus, asking students to choose from different sections on the menu (appetizers, main course, dessert) to create a full “meal.” (These styles are especially great for younger learners.)

Teachers and parents know that there are tons of ways to teach the same subject matter, but how do you decide on one or just a handful of activities that will be both meaningful and engaging for a classroom full of different students who each bring their own talents, interests, and background knowledge to the concept being studied?

I believe that the choice board is one of the absolute greatest tools to empower students to take ownership of their education, while rewarding them with the freedom to choose from a variety of meaningful activities.

Here is an example of a choice board I created to accompany the 7th grade History of the World curriculum by Abeka.


For our home school tutorial program, I include a wide variety of activities: reading comprehension questions, note taking strategies, essays, Bible memorization work, family activities, creative writing, vocabulary, lab reports, volunteering, connections to art and literature, etc. Many of these activities can be found as part of the curriculum, but I’ve added others to further expand the number of choices.

Students enjoy getting to choose how they will earn their homework points, and I enjoy seeing so much more creativity from them. They also help students learn about time management and even personal finance!

For my choice boards, students need to earn 500 points, but they are allowed to earn up to 100 bonus points per choice board. I encourage them to “bank” some bonus points each week to save them for a rainy day (i.e., a tough week due to travel, extracurricular activities, etc.). If you think about points as a form of currency, students are indirectly learning basic budgeting skills just by doing their homework! I also try to make sure that I’m awarding about 100 points per hour of work, so students can see about how much time they still need to finish a choice board just by checking how many points they lack. As a result, they start learning more about time management.

One drawback to using choice boards is that is does require quite a bit of explanation at the beginning, but the outcome is absolutely worth it!

On a recent World History Choice Board, one option was to recreate a picture that appeared in the textbook. Sophia Kingsbury, one of my particularly artistic students, used her abilities to digitally recreate a picture of a child soldier. The video below shows her amazing process.

Thanks to the flexibility of the choice board, Sophia was able to connect with the reading in a meaningful way that showcased her love for art and her God-given talent. The result? A masterpiece!

To see more of Sophia’s amazing artwork, check out her Instagram page, Sophia Rose Art.

To learn more about choice boards, check out this list of FAQs that I’ve developed for my students.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I have to complete every assignment on the choice board?

No. What is so great about the choice board format is that it is full of…choices. You get to pick which assignments you want to complete each week. Since all of the assignments listed help you dig deeper into what you’ve read, you have the freedom to choose activities that appeal to you.

Do I have to complete every assignment in a box?

No. You can choose ANY combination of assignments on the choice board in order to earn your points. Just because you choose one assignment from a certain box does not mean you now have to complete all of the activities in that box. You can mix and match as you wish.

Do I have to complete the same work on every choice board?

No. Every choice board in a clean slate. What you chose on the last choice board has nothing to do with what you choose on any other choice board. So, play around with them and have fun. Some students find activities that they really enjoy, so they choose them over and over. Other students try something new on each choice board. One suggestion, though – you don’t know if you like something until you try it, so don’t be afraid to think outside the “box” that you usually choose. 🙂

How many points do I have to earn?

500. Unless otherwise stated, most choice boards require you to earn 500 points, but you also have the opportunity to earn bonus points each week.

Can I get bonus points?

Yes. Unless otherwise stated, you can earn up to 100 bonus points on each choice board. However, the limit is 100, which means you can’t attempt any points over 600 to cover any points you might miss due to wrong answers. I STRONGLY encourage you to attempt at least a few bonus points on each choice board. Think of the points like money – you may have heard your parents talk about working “overtime” to save up a little extra money for a vacation, home repair, or “rainy day fund.” The bonus points are just like that – a little extra money in the bank for a rainy day. You never know when you are going to have a difficult week (due to sports, time constraints, emergency, etc.), and maybe you are only able to complete 300 points one week. However, if you’ve been “banking” some extra credit every week, it is easy for that 300 to still average out to an A (or even higher) thanks to all those bonus points.

How do I turn in my work?

Hard copy and Edmodo. No matter what activities you completed, you will need to turn in a completed choice board for each unit/module. In order to avoid situations in which the dog may have eaten your homework, the best thing to do is to turn in both a hard copy AND an electronic copy. That way, if something happens to the hard copy, we will have a back up online in Edmodo. I consider a “hard copy” to be the original page out of a workbook, a copy of the page, handwritten answers, or typed answers – any of these are acceptable. The choice board itself will serve as your cover sheet for the packet of work you are turning in. Always put any hard copies of work BEHIND the choice board before you staple your packet. Also, when turning in work on Edmodo, don’t forget to submit a picture of the choice board as well.

How do I earn points on the mandatory section?

Honor system. The mandatory section for each choice board consists of reading the current unit/module. I’m giving you points for doing this because it is part of your homework which requires time and effort on your part. However, you don’t have to do anything extra to “prove” that you completed this work; simply mark it as completed and fill in the section for the number of points attempted.

How long do I have to complete the choice board?

It depends. Typically history classes have one week per choice board, and science classes have two weeks. However, there will be times (such as over fall/spring/Christmas break) that you may have extra time, so make sure you check the due date listed in Edmodo.

How do I fill out the choice board?

Name, date, check marks, and points attempted. At the top of the choice board, please fill in your name, the date (either when you completed it or the due date is fine), and the total number of points attempted out of 500 (including bonus points). Also, you will want to fill out the points attempted section for each box. Remember, it’s perfectly fine to have a zero in a section or even what looks like a “low score” because you are mixing and matching points from each section to add up to 500 points total. Each activity has a box to check in front of it IF you completed it – place check marks ONLY in the boxes in front of activities you completed. This will help you keep up with what you’ve completed, and it also helps your parents and me see at a glance what you’ve completed.

How should I manage my time each week?

It’s up to you. Again, this is the beauty of homeschool – it allows you to be as flexible or as structured as you need. For the Notgrass history books, you have weekly units with five lessons per unit. So, you can easily do a lesson a day. Then, if you are trying to incorporate your choice board points into your plan for the week, I would suggest shooting for earning about 100 points on each of those 5 days. However, some students prefer to get “in the zone” on a certain subject and work on it for quite a few hours at a time, and that’s fine, too. For the science choice boards, you typically have two weeks to complete the work, but the readings and assignments usually take more time and effort, but you can still apply the same strategy for setting a points goal for each science study session you do.

How do I figure out my grade?

It’s a percentage. Take the grade I give you and divide by 500 points – that will give you your percentage. Here are some examples: 425/500 = 85    500/500 = 100%   575/500 = 115%. Remember – all these grades get averaged together, so a 450 one week plus a 550 another week is still like having two 100s. You will get your choice board packet back in class, but your grade will also be posted on Edmodo. Since classes only meet once a week, you may see your grade on Edmodo before you get your hard copy back in class.


Your turn – What is your favorite thing about using choice boards?

Passion Projects

“The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.”
― Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, first woman to be elected head of state of an African country



I absolutely LOVE this quote! It challenges us to step out of our comfort zones, dream big, then put in the elbow grease to achieve the impossible. After all, if you already have the capacity to achieve something, it’s more of a to-do list item than a dream anyway, right?

A dream stretches us and our faith. It makes us take the first steps on a journey trusting that God will direct our path, walk beside us, and be waiting for us at the finish line.

I feel like I’m living out my dream every day at HPA! It is the best combination of my passion for God and my passion for teaching, and this giant dream that used to scare me (and sometimes still does), is the most beautiful journey of faith.

Now, I am hoping to bring even more of that passion to our final projects for English class. Instead of simply writing a final research paper, I’m asking students to take on a passion project – to create something more than just five pages in MLA format.

So far, students have come up with ideas for photography projects, how-to video series, recipe books, original music productions, and the project pitches aren’t even due yet! I can’t wait to see what all they come up with over the course of this project.

So, here we are, dreaming big scary dreams about changing the world, because we serve a big God who has equipped us with the time, talents, and resources to do just that – leave the world a better place than we found it, no matter how young (or young at heart) we are.

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. -1 Timothy 4:12

So, what is your passion project? What dream has God placed on your heart?